Cape Town dog trainer, Sylvia Willemburg, found out exactly how comforting the companionship of animals could be when she started taking her dogs to visit her parents in their retirement home.
Her father had had an amputation, but the dogs could not care less that he was in a wheelchair. They were not embarrassed for his loss, or rather, at their own good fortune at having four legs. They just loved him and were happy to see him.
Sylvia knows how comforting the companionship of the animals can be. But now researchers are getting at the science behind those relationships and seeing how it can be used for therapeutic purposes.
The benefits of pets
There are countless stories of people who have found healing in the form of a furry friend.
These include people recovering from operations, the elderly, the disabled, and, in short, anyone who needs company. And who doesn't?
But pets give us so much more than company. Science has also shown the benefits of pets to human health:
Animals aid in relaxation and decrease anxiety
Petting an animal is a rhythmic, repetitive activity, which can act as a form of passive meditation. Interacting with an animal has been shown to reduce the cardiovascular, behavioural and psychological indicators of stress. For example, watching fish in an aquarium was found to be as effective as hypnosis in reducing anxiety in patients awaiting dental surgery.
Animals help decrease our blood pressure
There have been several scientific studies using healthy adults, healthy children, and adults with high blood pressure, which show that simply being in the presence of a dog, or petting an animal, can reduce blood pressure. Specific studies have also shown that cats are particularly good at reducing blood pressure in humans.
Animals can be silent therapists
Animals have been used by psychiatrists and psychologists in formal psychotherapy for many years. Informally, owners typically talk to their animals as if they were human. We can unload our problems, fears and concerns on them without fear of being judged. Animals are always good listeners, never give bad advice and are always supportive. They are non-judgmental, unprejudiced and respond to love, regardless of whether the person concerned is blind, deaf, in a wheelchair, ill or depressed.
Animals provide us with play time
Pets are non-judgmental playmates who will provide play on demand. They are always willing to chase a ball, go for a walk or interact with us. Play is an essential feature of social, intellectual, physical and emotional growth for all children. Disabled children respond particularly well to pets.
Animals may improve our survival after a major illness
Two studies have shown that owning a dog had a significant effect on survival after a heart attack. Patients who were admitted to the hospital after a heart attack, were followed for one year. The researchers found that patients who were alive one year after leaving the hospital, were more likely to own a pet.
Animals improve our overall health. People who own pets report better health when compared to non-pet owners, and it has been shown that pet owners on medical aid make fewer visits to their doctors than non-owners. - (Charmaine Horne and Susan Erasmus/Health24, July 2006)
- Last updated: June 2010